"Perhaps there was a lack of faith in Indigenous authority, a deficit arising from their own Australian attitudes towards native people both at home and in their territories"
| Tok Piksa | Edited extracts from an article
BIELEFELD, GERMANY - At the time of the Australian takeover, the capital of German New Guinea, Rabaul, was described by AL Epstein in his book Matupit as "not so much a town as a tropical garden, dotted about with government offices, business premises, and bungalows.
“The avenues were carefully laid out and planted with Poinciana and Casuarina trees, the latter creating the feeling, as one visitor many years later was to describe it, of looking down the nave of a cathedral half a mile long."
The Australian expropriation of German New Guinea and the problems that the locals faced dealing with their new colonial masters were presented favourably to the public back in Australia.
The military victory and takeover in New Britain and Bougainville (known as German Solomons) was depicted in a cartoon in an Australian newspaper in December of 1914.
Notice that the native soldier is already wearing a Digger hat and in the cartoon's caption, he is referred to by the derogatory term, ‘The Black-Birds’.
At this time, Pacific Islanders were still working as slaves in the sugar cane fields of Queensland.
Between 55,000 and 62,500 South Sea Islanders were taken to Australia as slaves during the Black-Birding days.
In Australian hands, Epstein found a perceived deterioration of the administration and state of the former German colony.
And the noted historian, Charles Rowley, wrote:
“The Administration was, from its very nature, a caretaker administration, whose main concern became to maintain and increase the value of already existing European economic enterprises in the hope that victory would place them under Australian control.
“Despite the many signs of neglect, Rabaul remained physically very much as the Germans had left it.”
Epstein quoted a letter to the Rabaul Times from a Rabaul resident in 1928: "Why has the Botanic Gardens been neglected? It is to be hoped that some effort will be made at least to restore them to what they were when Germany lost Rabaul.”
But it seems the first thing that preoccupied the Australians when they took over was law and order. Epstein quotes the Rabaul Times from July 1925:
"It was however, the 'native question' - or the 'Black Peril' as it was sometimes called locally - which appears to have preoccupied many of the white residents of Rabaul at this time.
“Frequent complaints were made about official laxity in administering the laws that purported to control native movements and behaviour, and a contrast was drawn between the contemporary 'disregard of all control and authority, the laziness and insolence, an even open scorn displayed' by the natives towards their white masters and the 'ingrained respect and obedience shown to their previous controllers' under the German regime."
Australian frustration with their own lack of control could be manifested on two fronts.
On one, there seemed to be the need to humiliate the former German colonial masters in front of the natives, seemingly to show everyone who the real masters were.
On the other, the Australians needed to command the obedience if not the respect and admiration of the natives.
To do that, Germans who broke the law under the new Australian administration were caned in public in front of assembled natives and white residents.
In November 1914, two months after the Australian takeover of German New Guinea, there was a public whipping of a German doctor who had assaulted Methodist missionary, Reverend WH Cox.
Many Germans in Rabaul and New Ireland were part of the Roman Catholic mission while the British were Methodists.
There were tensions attributed to Christian ideological differences but it seems the Methodist church was also able to enlist the new regime to pursue its own interests in grabbing both land and congregations.
This religious tension between the ‘Popies’ (the derogatory slang term for Catholics) and the Methodists continued in New Britain until PNG’s independence many years later in 1975.
After World War I the people themselves continued to be whipped or flogged as a matter of course.
That was the general way the Australian masters related to the natives who were their labourers and domestic servants.
The Germans had developed a system of organisation and working with native authorities which the Australians seem not to have fully grasped.
Perhaps they were too distracted by a number of factors, one being the seizure of property previously ‘owned’ by the defeated Germans.
Or perhaps a lack of faith in Indigenous authority, a deficit arising from their own Australian attitudes towards native people both at home and in their two New Guinea territories.